Xiaoming Zhang: Deng Xiaoping and China’s Invasion of Vietnam

zhang_dengWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Xiaoming Zhang, author of Deng Xiaoping’s Long War: The Military Conflict between China and Vietnam, 1979-1991. The surprise Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979 shocked the international community. The two communist nations had seemed firm political and cultural allies, but the twenty-nine-day border war imposed heavy casualties, ruined urban and agricultural infrastructure, leveled three Vietnamese cities, and catalyzed a decadelong conflict. In this groundbreaking book, Zhang traces the roots of the conflict to the historic relationship between the peoples of China and Vietnam, the ongoing Sino-Soviet dispute, and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s desire to modernize his country. Zhang takes readers into the heart of Beijing’s decision-making process and illustrates the war’s importance for understanding the modern Chinese military, as well as China’s role in the Asian-Pacific world today.

Today marks the 36th anniversary of China’s invasion of Vietnam. In today’s post, Zhang examines the still-controversial and shrouded motivations behind the China’s decision to go to war, focusing on the prominent influence that the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had in the events that initiated the war.


On February 17, 1979, China launched the so-called punitive war against Vietnam, a longtime Cold War ally in the wars against France and America. China and Vietnam stayed locked in hostile relations, fighting along their borders, for over a decade. The lives and property lost in the conflict are beyond comprehension. Today, people in these two countries still bear deep scars from this conflict. Both Chinese and Vietnamese governments remain very sensitive about the subject. This history has been understudied not only in China and Vietnam but also in the West, largely due to lack of access to official records in both countries. Public knowledge and understanding about this war is therefore not much greater now than when the conflict occurred.

Since the early 1990s, studies about China’s involvement in the Indochina Wars have mushroomed, shedding new light on Cold War historiography. But one question that has not been satisfactorily addressed was why China and Vietnam went to war against each other after many years of “brother-plus-comrade” relations between the two nations. A study of Sino-Vietnamese relations in the large historical context, Deng Xiaoping’s Long War embodies several years’ research and writing, offering the latest interpretations about the Sino-Vietnamese military conflict from a Chinese perspective. In the book I retrace the thirteen years of hostility between China and Vietnam and argue that the previous two-decade intimate relationship between the two countries was far more fragile than it had appeared.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the China-Vietnam alliance was formed largely because, at the time, the countries shared a common enemy: the United States. The alliance was doomed to collapse, however, in the late 1960s, as Beijing came to regard the Soviet Union, and not the United States, as its greatest enemy. The Soviet-Vietnamese alliance formed in 1978 prompted Beijing to perceive Hanoi as a convenient proxy for Soviet expansionism in Southeast Asia. More important, such a change of geopolitical landscape convinced Beijing’s leaders that China’s physical security was in jeopardy. This also meant that China’s newly adopted national priority—economic reform—would likewise be threatened by the increasingly unfavorable security environment. Chinese leaders inevitably attached domestic considerations to the nation’s external policies and foreign relations, rationalizing that going to war against Vietnam would help China forge a new anti-Soviet strategic relationship with Western countries.

All these calculations were made by one Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping. His paramount political status and strength of personality played a major role in shaping China’s foreign policy during the last decade of the Cold War, opposing Soviet hegemony while allying with the United States and other Western countries in order to gain their support for China’s economic reform. I am convinced that there was no way of avoiding war with Vietnam in 1978-1979 once Deng had ascended to China’s supreme leadership position. Thus the Sino-Vietnamese conflict could be rightly called “Deng Xiaoping’s War.”

In short, the aim of my book is not to contend whether China was justified in its attack on a small neighboring country at the time. Rather, it is about why and how two communist countries went to war during the Cold War. The book also examines the legacies and impacts of the conflict on Chinese military and society. To this perspective, the book also sheds light on contemporary discussions of China’s role in the Asian-Pacific region and beyond as China’s military potential has grown significantly. In particular, each time China makes assertive moves against Vietnam in the South China Sea, concerns arise that another military conflict will perhaps break out between the two countries since they fought over disputed border territories in the 1980s.

What I demonstrate in Deng Xiaoping’s Long War is that China and Vietnam engaged war in the late 1970s as a result of unique circumstances during the last decade of the Cold War and a combination of causes, ranging from Deng’s perception about a Soviet threat to his newly adopted economic reform policy. History will never repeat itself. Both countries have to learn to live with each other whether in peacetime or in strained circumstances.

Since we do not have full access to Chinese archival records, validation of the objectivity of currently available Chinese information is problematic. Evidence from government-controlled sources is always self-serving, intended to shape history in the government’s favor. It is especially a challenge for those who study military-related subjects. Thus I urge readers to take extra caution about the Chinese account of events, while keeping the interpretation I give in the book open-ended, pending new information.

Xiaoming Zhang is professor of strategy and history at the Air War College. His book, Deng Xiaoping’s Long War: The Military Conflict between China and Vietnam, 1979-1991, will be available in August.